- Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze
- The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David
- Woman with a Parrot by Gustave Courbet
- Bridge Over the Lily Pond by Claude Monet
- Madame X by John Singer Sargent
- Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zúñiga by Francisco de Goya
- Aristotle with a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt
- The Musicians by Caravaggio
- Woman with a Water Jug by Johannes Vermeer
- Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) by Jackson Pollock
This huge museum in Manhattan, New York, is home to over 2 million pieces of art from all over the world. Van Gogh, Cézanne, Pissarro, Auguste Renoir, Joseph Durand-Ruel, Jean-Frédéric Bazille, Manet, Berthe Morisot, Degas, Ingres, Delacroix, and Warhol all appear at the MET, an out-of-the-ordinary art museum in the United States of America.
The greatest artistic movements are all present at the MET: impressionism, realism, self-portraits, expressionism, fauvism, naturalism, pointillism, and symbolism.
In this article, we've put together a non-exhaustive list of some of the best paintings you can see in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze
Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze is a painter of German origin who specialised in painting historical events, especially American historical accounts including the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the American War of Independence.
The latter was the theme in this 1851 painting of Washington Crossing the Delaware, an oil on canvas showing the event that occurred in 1776 following a surprise attack from the American on the British during the battle of Trenton.
The story behind this painting is a study of fascination, among other reasons because it was not painted in the US.
The German-born artist had returned to his homeland from a sojourn in America, infused with a desire to encourage liberal reform in Europe through the example set by the United States.
He conceived the idea for the work in 1848, during the Spring of Nations, a series of revolutions that rattled Europe.
His first completed canvas was damaged by a fire in his studio. He was able to restore it and subsequently sold it to Bremen’s art museum, the Kunsthalle. Unfortunately, it was lost forever during the Allied Forces bombings during the Second World War.
Fortunately, he had painted another version. This life-sized canvas was a part of several private art collections before taking up permanent residence at The Met.
Like so many other works of art, this tableau represents artistic vision rather than fact.
While historical records show that General Washington did cross the Delaware River on Christmas night, he did so nearly a century before the event’s portrayal was executed – indeed, some 40 years before Mr Leutze was born.
We have no idea whether Washington stood with his foot propped or what he and other river crossers were wearing.
To get that uniquely American look, Mr Leutze hired American tourists to model for him; other models included art students from the nearby academies.
A story of American patriotism, made in Germany!
Discover some of the greatest works housed in the Louvre.
The Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David
As the head of the neo-classical movement in France and an important French painter, you might know of Jacques-Louis David. While his most famous piece is the The Coronation of Napoleon (which can be seen at the Louvre in Paris), The Death of Socrates is also a famous piece of his.
It was painted in 1787 for the Salon and shows the historical event of the Greek philosopher Socrates being forced to drink poison hemlock. Corruption of youth and introducing strange gods were the grounds for the decision.
Mr David did his research before sketching and painting this popular scene. Yet historians say the tableau contains many inaccuracies, perhaps the most glaring one being Apollodorus, seen leaning on the wall inside the arch, crying.
The Dialogues of Plato specifically mentions Socrates sending Apollodorus away because he was grieving too overtly.
Plato himself is misrepresented in this painting. At the time of Socrates’ death, he would have been a young man. However, he is shown to be far older – the bald man in the white robe sitting so despondently at the foot of the bed is supposed to be Socrates’ most famous student.
Many characters included in Plato’s recountings were omitted from Jacques-Louis David’s rendering and those who were included, such as Plato, were painted with generous dramatic license.
Socrates himself is shown as noble and wise rather than depicted as he is described: an ugly man, often dirty and unkempt.
The Death of Socrates was painted by several other artists:
- Michel-François Dandré-Bardon in 1753
- Charles-Michel-Ange Challe in 1761
- Jacques-Philippe-Joseph de Saint-Quentin in 1762
- Jean-Baptiste Alizard in 1762
- Pierre Peyron in 1787
This is a magnificent painting to see when you’re in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
You can also learn more about the pieces in the Musée d'Orsay.
Woman with a Parrot by Gustave Courbet
Woman with a Parrot was painted in 1866 by realist artist Gustave Courbet. In the painting, we see a nude woman on a white sheet holding her arm in the air with a parrot on her hand.
His first submission of a nude painting at Salon, two years prior, was rejected because it was considered indecent.
This second canvas, with the model posed and draped to gain acceptance as a submission, was nevertheless controversial not only for her wantonly discarded clothing but, for all things, her dishevelled hair.
Art historians and connoisseurs are of a consensus, at least for the most part, that the model so freely reclined must be Joanna Hiffernan, a muse to both Courbet and American painter James Whistler.
Ms Hiffernan, herself a painter even though none of her work was ever shown, was also one of the models for another of Courbet’s erotic paintings titled The Sleepers (Le Sommeil) which was also painted in 1866.
So incendiary was this painting that it was not allowed to be shown publicly until 1988. In contrast with his other, more erotic works, Woman with a Parrot is considered tame.
It was presented to the Salon in 1866 and was judged non-academic owing to the woman’s open legs. However, Courbet continued to go against tradition and paint people:
“The beautiful is in nature, and it is encountered under the most diverse forms of reality. Once it is found it belongs to art, or rather to the artist who discovers it.” - Gustave Courbet
This painting was added to the MET’s collection in 1929 by Henry Osborne Havemeyer, an American art collector.
See various painting courses here.
Bridge Over the Lily Pond by Claude Monet
Claude Monet is arguably the most famous French impressionist painter. While he painted pieces like “Impression, Sunrise” in the 19th century, in the 20th century, he started painting his Water Lillies series including The Met's “Bridge Over the Lily Pond” in 1899.
Did you know that the impressionist art movement got its name from Monet's Impression, Sunrise tableau?
This masterpiece of the impressionist movement was one of over 250 pieces the artist painted of his water lily garden. Before the water lilies, the artist painted series such as Haystacks, Rouen Cathedral, and La Gare Saint-Lazare.
So prolific was Monet that he could produce upwards of five completed works in one year.
Perhaps his record-breaking production stemmed from the fact that he often painted the same scene, albeit with small variations in tone, hue and saturation.
For instance, his Bridge Over the Lily Pond hanging in The Met features the same bridge, captured at roughly the same angle as nine other canvases, each bearing a slightly different name.
The Japanese Footbridge hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC while The Lily Pond hangs in the National Gallery in London.
When it comes to impressionist painters, Claude Monet and Edouard Manet are the best examples of impressionist painting.
The Prado in Madrid is also home to some fantastic pieces of art.
Madame X by John Singer Sargent
Madame X or Portrait of Madame X is a painting by the American painter John Singer Sargent. The 1884 work depicts an American woman, Virginie Gautreau, who left Louisana for Paris, a symbol of Parisian society.
Ms Gautreau is perhaps one of the earliest examples of being famous for being famous.
Living a life of lavender-scented scandal, Ms Gautreau always gave off that flower’s fragrance no matter if she dallied through Paris society or conducted illicit dalliances (not quite) behind her husband’s back.
There must have been something about her, though.
American painter Edward Simmons stalked through the streets of Paris and, according to all accounts, men found her irresistible. Mr Sargent was similarly impressed, leading him to plead an acquaintance:
"I have a great desire to paint her portrait and have reason to think she would allow it and is waiting for someone to propose this homage to her beauty. If you are 'bien avec elle' and will see her in Paris, you might tell her I am a man of prodigious talent.” - John Singer Sargent
Perhaps because, for all of her romantic entanglements she felt lonely, she agreed to let this painter, as American as she was, capture her likeness on canvas. Or maybe it was just as many speculate to this day: artist and model were both social climbers, helping each other up the ladder.
It’s important to note that Mr Sargent did not paint Madame X as a commission – requested by the subject. His desire to immortalise her made him so bold in his request.
As planned, the painting was shown at Salon, causing great scandal – not so much for the work itself but because of Madame X’s reputation.
Of second-tier outrage were her near-translucent skin, her dramatic figure and her general air of haughtiness when she wasn’t of a social class to be haughty.
However, Mr Sargent did garner lots of press that turned into commissions for more portraits, just as he had planned.
Still, he must have felt something for Ms Gautreau. A year after her death in 1915, the artist finally relinquished his hold on the piece, writing The Met’s director “I suppose it is the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Maybe it was love for his creation rather than the woman that kept him holding on.
Manuel Osorio Manrique de Zúñiga by Francisco de Goya
It’s almost impossible to not admire a piece by Francisco de Goya, one of Spain’s most famous artists.
Tres de Mayo, The Nude Maja, the Witches' Sabbath are all major 18th and 19th-century paintings. However, Goya also created intimate portraits such as this one of the Count of Altamira’s son that he completed in 1787.
It was the norm for wealthy patrons to commission portraits of family members; indeed, the boy’s father contracted Mr Goya to paint his wife, his newborn daughter and another of his sons.
For Francisco Goya, portraits of children must have been especially poignant.
Born into a family that only just held their head above poverty, he started training as a painter when he was 14. Leaving his home behind, he pursued further education in art in Madrid, where he also met his wife.
Their life was marred by tragedy. Although quick to conceive, all of the pregnancies save one ended in miscarriage.
However, all that loss of life is not what turned Goya to paint dark, brooding scenes; when he was 47 years old, he was stricken with an illness that left him deaf.
We might believe that despite a successful career as an artist – he became the painter of the Spanish Royal Court in 1799, his personal life was so beset by misfortune that he finally bowed under the pressure, rendering pessimistic paintings for the rest of his career.
That and the fact that little Manuel, the child depicted in this painting died when he was just eight years old makes this portrait that much more appealing.
The artist chose an interesting way to paint the child; still as a mannequin and surrounded by pets, colours, and interesting use of light.
Maybe Goya had a frisson of foretelling in freezing Manuel in that static pose.
Aristotle with a Bust of Homer by Rembrandt
Rembrandt needs no introduction; this Dutch Baroque master is one of the most famous painters in the world.
So renowned was he that Don Antonio Ruffo, a Sicilian businessman commissioned Rembrandt to paint him a picture. Don Ruffo was convinced that whatever the artist would render would be a masterpiece so he did not specify what the painting should depict.
The result was this piece, wherein you can see Aristotle dressed in 17th-century attire and posing with a bust of the poet Homer.
Because such latitude was granted to the artist, interpretation of the painting and the identity of the main subject caused more than a bit of controversy.
The man whose hand rests on Homer’s head was thought to represent either Torquato Tasso or Ludovico Ariosto, both Italian poets. That speculation led some to see a more recently-living poet’s appreciation for his forerunner in Rembrandt’s work.
Even now, art critics cannot seem to agree on what this painting is trying to say.
One theory is that, because the right (favoured) hand lies on the bust while the left (disfavoured) hand rests on the jewelled chain, the painting’s message is that thought is worth more than money.
Another posits that the objects around the figure matter more than the figure and what he’s doing.
The stack of books in the background, for instance, are meant to attach great value to literary works.
This idea is contrary to the most widely accepted theme that philosophy comes before poetry and art in general. Thus, Aristotle is inspired by the poet. The political aspect is represented by the portrait of Alexander the Great on Aristotle’s medallion.
The piece was acquired by the MET in 1961 for the modest sum of 2.3 million dollars.
The Musicians by Caravaggio
The Musicians or Concert of Youths is an oil on canvas from the Italian baroque master Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. As a naturalist, realist, and great user of chiaroscuro, Caravaggio is famous for this huge work.
The lute player is thought to be Mario Minniti, Caravaggio’s companion and an artist in his own right. The subject of another Carravaggio work, The Lute Player, strongly resembles the lutenist in this painting, leading many to believe that the same person posed for both pieces.
It’s possible that the person in the background is Caravaggio, making this one of the artist’s first self-portraits.
For all of the light and clarity of this work – as opposed to the dramatic contrast of his chiaroscuro, the presence of Cupid (reaching for grapes) in the background and the manuscripts that show the musicians are practising madrigals, there doesn’t seem to be much happiness in this tableau.
The lutenist’s eyes are teary, perhaps indicating that the song they’re singing speaks of the hurtful side of love. None of the musicians appears happy or upbeat; indeed, it looks like they are singing a dirge rather than songs of love.
Restorations have damaged this canvas to some extent. Nevertheless, it is hailed as one of Caravaggio’s finest works.
The theme of mythology and Bacchus is present in Caravaggio’s work and in pieces that can be found in New York, France, Italy, England, and Spain.
Woman with a Water Jug by Johannes Vermeer
Vermeer, the Dutch Baroque painter, is most famous for his pieces like The Milkmaid or Girl with a Pearl Earring. Vermeer, much like Rembrandt, is considered a master of the Dutch Golden Age.
The piece Woman with a Water Jug, painted in 1658, depicts a young working-class woman carrying a water jug with one hand and opening a window with the other.
This painting is one of a group that Vermeer executed between the early to mid-1660s.
Remarkable in its clarity and detail, it perfectly makes the case for those who believe that Vermeer used a camera obscura to produce such photorealism in his paintings.
This is known as the Hockney-Falco Thesis, which claims that not only Vermeer but several other Renaissance and Baroque painters used some sort of optics to render such clear images on canvas.
Furthermore, art historians note that many of Vermeer’s tableaux are painted against the same background, presumably in the same room, lending credence to the theory that a pinhole camera must have been set up.
There is substantial dispute around the idea that Vermeer used any type of lenses or focusing devices in executing his paintings despite many of his artistic touches – the way shadows fall and the level of detail in such minute components as scrollwork or individual curls on a subject’s head would be nearly impossible to render if seen only through the naked eye.
Tim Jenison set out to prove this theory by recreating some of Vermeer’s more famous works using various optical tricks such as camera lucida and a concave mirror.
You can see his results in the documentary film Tim’s Vermeer.
Like in other pieces, Vermeer painted a preoccupied woman contrasting the freedom of outside with the traditional rules inside.
Autumn Rhythm (Number 30) by Jackson Pollock
Autumn Rhythm (Number 30), is an enamel paint on canvas by Jackson Pollock, an American abstract expressionist painter. This influential contemporary artist created over 700 pieces!
Here are some of his other great works:
- Untitled (Naked Man with Knife), 1938-1940
- Mural, 1943
- Number 5, 1948
- One: Number 31, 1950
- Number 1 (Lavender Mist), 1950
- Blue Poles: Number 11, 1952
- Convergence, 1952
- The Deep, 1953
- White Light, 1954
By the time he created this work, Jackson Pollock was already profoundly alcoholic. Violently lashing out was de rigeur for this temperamental artist; indeed, some say that he attacked his canvases rather than painted them.
His style was wholly physical. Whereas most painters stand placidly in front of their easel, palette in hand and meting out brushstrokes with admirable economy, Pollock danced around his canvases in a frenzied display, almost as though the need to create possessed him entirely and fought its way out of his every pore.
His tortured soul matched his tortured execution and the seeming tranquillity left behind on those large, untreated canvases might be thought of as the calm after the storm.
While his technique is often the focus, Autumn Rhythm seems to express anger. It may well be because Mr Pollock was at his most frenetic when he painted it, only six years before his death in a car crash.
We could have mentioned the other artists on display in the MET like Gauguin, Kandinsky, Caillebotte, Sisley, Corot, Géricault, Seurat, or even Watteau.
Would you like to visit the Metropolitan Musem of Art?
If you can't, don't forget that you can see impressionist paintings online or visit museums nearer to home.
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